By JORDYN GRZELEWSKI
Gulay Yazar no longer wears a hijab. She did so for a year, but then decided to take it off.
She had emigrated with her family to the United States from Turkey when she was a child. The family settled in New York. Gulay and her husband, also a Turkish immigrant, had three children, two boys and a girl. They moved to Youngstown 10 years ago. While she found life to be slow in Youngstown with not much to do, at least there wasn’t much traffic — an upside of Youngstown life on which most can agree.
Gulay had by now become a citizen; her husband had a green card, which was up for renewal. Their children were now entering early adolescence and Gulay had decided that it was time to do something for herself. She went back to school, to Youngstown State, where she began studying in 2014.
Gulay is now 35 years old and a college sophomore and life was good, if a little hectic.
“My house,” she told me the first time we met, “looks like Syria right now.” A practicing Muslim – she fasted during Ramadan — but she is “not like religious, religious.” Her parents are quite conservative in their faith, and Gulay grew up in a religious household. Now, religion guides her life but does not dictate it. She tries to pray five times a day, a practice that Islam calls for, but often doesn’t have time.
Still, there was a connection to other Muslims in Youngstown. As it happened her husband, who was in real estate, owned the buildings that housed two of Youngstown’s three mosques. Gulay had taken on the additional responsibility of heading her university’s Muslim Student Association.
So it was that Gulay began to hear things that, while not deeply troubling, nonetheless hinted at unsettling times for Muslims in Youngstown, where she had always felt that Muslims were welcome.
Gulay sits perched on a sofa, a bookbag, textbooks, and notebooks scattered at her feet. I’ve interrupted her study session. She has a big pharmacology exam coming up.
We sit in the living room of her spacious Canfield home, which is tucked away off a busy thoroughfare. A brick turret with a bright-blue door juts out of the middle of the off-white facade. There are photos of her children: 15-year-old Eray, 14-year-old Edanur, and 11-year-old Yunus. Behind Gulay is a burst of color from a floral painting. The room is decorated in rich, warm colors.
Gulay wears a sapphire-blue top, with matching earrings and a matching headband pushing back her thick, wavy brown hair. She tells me about a friend of hers, also a resident of the affluent suburb where Gulay lives, whose house was egged around the time of the election. The friend is an immigrant from Pakistan and a practicing Muslim who dresses in the traditional, conservative garb of her faith.
A few of the young women in the Muslim Student Association, nervous about the anti-Muslim rhetoric they were beginning to hear, asked her if they should stop wearing the hijab. She told them that she couldn’t tell them one way or the other – it was their choice. “You have to live your life the way you believe,” she told them. Gulay believes women should be free to choose.
Friends are telling her they’re afraid to go to such places as the shopping mall, nervous about the anti-Muslim backlash. Gulay doesn’t share that fear, telling me, “You can be safe or unsafe anywhere.”
Yet even as the Trump administration had begun taking a more aggressive approach to removing people who are living in the country illegally, Gulay was ambivalent about the crackdown. “If you’re illegal here, you can get deported. I can’t really blame anyone for that,” she said. “That’s why we have immigration laws in place. But then, coming from an immigrant family, people come here for a better living, so it’s really devastating to see people getting deported for any reason.”
Gulay recently had participated in a rally in downtown Youngstown opposing Trump’s restrictions on refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority countries. She was encouraged by what she saw that day: Muslims, Jews, and Christians joining together.
“It’s kind of nice to see the other religions unite in times of hardship,” she said. “It kind of gives me a lot of hope for humanity.” A talk at Youngstown State hosted by the Muslim Student Association drew a crowd of about 60 people. It also drew the support of top university officials, which Gulay also found encouraging.
There had been some initial concern about her husband’s green card renewal. But that abated, and Gulay was encouraging her husband, Dursun, to apply for citizenship. The family is hoping to have all of that sorted out in time to visit Turkey this summer. They visit their home country every other year, spending about a month with relatives and letting their kids experience life there.
Gulay’s ties to her native country and to the United States tug at her. In Turkey, she relishes the country’s generous hospitality, something she brings back with her to the states. “When you have company you cook like 10 different meals,” she said. “I try to raise my kids with the Turkish culture.”
But she is equal parts American: “When I’m not here, I’m more American, if that makes sense.”
When she travels abroad she feels a deep loyalty to her home of the last 25 years, and is quick to jump to its defense. In the United States, she said, “You’re kind of in the middle of both cultures.
“Even going to YSU as an adult now, it tells me so much about this country. You don’t really get that chance very easily in a Third-World country. I love America so much.”
That’s why, Gulay says, it hurts when people act as if she doesn’t belong here.